Thursday, October 4, 2018

Better living through alchemy

They're in every home and shop in the land: paper packets full of powders and tablets, glass bottles of unguents and solutions, pots of foul-smelling pastes.  Everyone swears by the alchemical products of the elves, many bearing the familiar red sign of the Three Spoons company, makers of those horrid pills your grandmother used to make you take.  They're an old-fashioned product for a scientific age.

They don't always work.  Some of them never work.  In fact, it's unclear if alchemists have had any real success since inventing gunpowder.

Most magic isn't real.  But every once in a while it turns out to be true.  Maybe most alchemical solutions are phony, but there's that one gooey liquid that actually turns iron into gold.  Maybe most monsters are just rumors, but the spiny tree-goat turns out to be real.

Signs in the Wilderness is a setting full of rumors and superstitions.  Most of them are false, but just enough of them are true that you can't afford to dismiss any out of hand.  I like a truth rate around 20%, low enough you can rail against superstitious yokels, but high enough there's always a nagging worry in your mind.

When you find some alchemical product on a shelf, check to see what it is:

Form (d20)
1-4powder in a paper envelope
5-7envelope of tablets
8-10thin liquid in a glass bottle
11-13thick, goopy liquid in a glass bottle
14-15pot full of thick paste
16-17dark glass bottle of pills
18-19solid block to be crumbled up or dissolved, wrapped in paper
20something immersed in liquid

Hopefully the label (or some handwritten note) says what this stuff is supposed to do:

Purpose (d10)
1-4medicine(d8) 1-2: cure a particular ailment, 3-4: heal a wound, 5-6: avoid a future health problem, 7: give energy / prevent sleep, 8: dangerous longevity treatment
5-7flammable(d8) 1-3: works like gunpowder, 4-5: firestarting material for wet wood, 6-7: explosives, 8: stuff ignited by water/air
8-9miscellaneous(d8) 1-3: substance that glows for a while, 4-5: help crops grow, 6: caustic acid that eats through just about anything, 7: very strong glue, 8: treatment for a tool/weapon to make it tougher
10transmutationturn one substance into another (d8, roll twice) 1: some kind of stone, 2: water, 3: ash/sand, 4: glass, 5: air / flammable gas, 6: iron, 7: mercury, 8: gold

This stuff is difficult to work with.  The reason might be marked on the label, but it might not:

Problem (d6)
1must be kept away from light/heat/moisture
2fragile, has a reaction if shaken/broken
3ridiculously flammable
4terrible stench, gives off noxious fumes
5stains anything it touches
6more poisonous than you'd like

The big question is how useful this stuff actually is:

Effectiveness (d8)
1-3It doesn't actually do anything.  People say it's working, but in a way you can't see, or that it takes more time, or that you just got a bad batch, or that you need to mix it with something else (that actually works).
4-6It does just a little of what it's supposed to to, but it causes some harm/damage that's small or temporary enough that you might put up with it.  People say that's how you know it's working.
7It does what it's supposed to, more or less, but it has an additional Problem.
8It works as advertised, but it (d6) 1-2: is no longer manufactured, 3-4: is very expensive, 5: is all that's been made so far, 6: will cause an unwanted result days or months after use.

Products like these are common in elven settlements, as well as anywhere among people who trade with the elves.  The further you get from the elven cities, the rarer alchemical products are.

random alchemical product


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a perfect encapsulation of patent medicine and easy system for potions. Nicely done.

  3. Purpose: Flammable.
    Problem: Too flammable.
    Effectiveness: None. It's not flammable.

    Yeah, I got a bad batch.

    1. Yeah, that's quite a bad batch.

      Though if I rolled that up at the table, I'd try to run with it anyhow. Let's see... It burns slowly with soot and a weak flame if it's shaken, but if you try to light it with another fire source it burns quickly with lots of sparks and pops. Just about worthless.

  4. I've noticed that most OSR rumor tables are about 50% false, which I've always thought was way too high, because it basically makes every piece of information you gather into a coin-flip. My inclination is to either make all rumors true, or to make them either true-but-incomplete or false-but-not-the-opposite-of-the-truth.

    (So if the rumor is "the great bull kills anyone who wears red" then either there better be a great bull who kills anyone wearing red, or there should be a giant bronze bull statue, or even just a large herd of peaceful cattle - but what there better not be is a rumor "red is the color of friendship, allowing anyone to be welcomed as an ally by the great bull" when in fact the monster will murder them on sight if they follow this advice.)

    However, I find your idea about using mostly false rumors compelling. "I like a truth rate around 20%, low enough you can rail against superstitious yokels, but high enough there's always a nagging worry in your mind."

    I guess what I really dislike is the "coin-toss" feeling . As I said, I prefer to make my rumors true ... but with perhaps a sense that you're not getting the full story. But I like this idea that rumors are known to be mostly old-wives-tales ... except that just occasionally, the old wives got it right.

    1. It's like gambling: the most compelling games are ones that pay out just often enough to keep you coming back. If just enough superstitions are true, it's wise to be superstitious yourself.